At age 27, Danny Meyer abandoned plans to go to law school and decided to open Union Square Cafe in New York City–a decision about which New York City’s food lovers are eternally grateful.
In the 25 years since, Meyer has opened 28 restaurants and–incredibly, given the cutthroat nature of the New York restaurant scene, where restaurants open and close more frequently than subway doors–he has only shut one down. Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, Eleven Madison Park, and Gramercy Tavern consistently appear on most major New York top restaurant lists. Eleven Madison, which Meyer sold to its chef and General Manager in November, is one of only five Michelin 3-star restaurants in the city (Michelin’s highest rating); The New York Times gives Eleven Madison its highest rating of four stars. Only six restaurants in a city with 26,000 places to eat merit such a badge of honor.
As the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, Meyer oversees a large team that manages all of the restaurants and additional businesses, including the Shake Shack burger stands, which have in a few short years become a national and international brand, with locations in Miami, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Kuwait, and Dubai, among others. Demand for Shack burgers in New York is so frenzied that someone made a Shake Shack app that lets you watch live video feed of the line so you can plan your burger binge based on its (usually very long) length.
This week, he opened a Blue Smoke BBQ stand and another fine-dining restaurant, North End Grill, in New York’s Battery Park City. North End is his second collaboration with Chef Floyd Cardoz, recently the winner of Top Chef Masters.
We sat down with Meyer at North End Grill to talk about the lessons he’s learned in a famously risky industry, and the secret ingredient of his success that has stayed the same all these years.
Fast Company: You’ve been in the restaurant business for 25 years. You’ve seen a lot. What have been the biggest changes in this industry in that time?
Danny Meyer: Restaurants and chefs have become followed by such a broad swath of the public, in a way that used to be reserved for sports stars, movie stars, and theater actors. Restaurants are in the firmament of today’s common culture. It would have been unheard of when I got into the business to talk about where a particular chef was cooking and for people to know who that chef was. So now there’s a public that’s hungry for food information. There are now artisans and farmers, winemakers, bread bakers, cheese makers, people who raise pigs, and people who roast coffee who take what they do very seriously. Twenty-five years ago you would have been ashamed to say you were going into the restaurant business or to become a pig farmer, today you are proud. We also have a media that covers food and restaurants extensively. Twenty-five years ago we didn’t have the Internet, blogs, or the food network. We had a group of students visit us from St. Louis who are studying marketing. Twenty-five years ago they never would have put a restaurant on their list of places to visit.
One of the other big movements in the restaurant business has been the local and organic movement. You were early to that, why has that been important to you?
I’m a big believer that you can try to change the world based on philosophy, doctrine, and belief. But I think the thing that really drives the world is hedonism, the pleasure factor. As far as I’m concerned, the best way to convert people to eating fresh local grown produce is to show them that local fresh grown produce tastes better. Our industry is hyper-competitive; there are 26,000 restaurants in New York, so each one has to give you a reason to try it as well as a reason to come back. We are constantly looking for better ingredients to cook with. So that when you come here you say “The grilled salmon I had at North End Grill was the best I’ve ever had.” We’re constantly looking for better servers so people will say “My server made me feel better.” In our industry, we can’t leave a single stone unturned; we’re always looking for what’s better. I think where our industry–or any industry–can get in trouble is when they try to invent things for invention’s sake. Sometimes early in their careers, chefs make the mistake of adding one too many things to a plate to get attention. If a chef is just coming up with wiz-bang gimmicks on their plate, that has nothing to do with bringing real pleasure to people.
Several of your places have become part of the classic New York restaurant establishment. How do you keep the “classic” elements amidst constantly needing to innovate in order to stay fresh?
You want to preserve a sense of how someone’s made to feel, even while you’re evolving your product. Your product can evolve all the time and it has to. In 1985, no one had ever seen something we called “Filet Mignon of Tuna.” It was our most popular dish at Union Square Cafe for years and years. Then after a while, it started to read like 1985. So the goal was to keep making people feel the way they want to feel when they come here, but also to figure out a way to change the tuna. What we really try to do in all of our restaurants is to find this magical harmony between allowing the guest to feel like they went out to eat and like they came home to eat. The architecture of somewhere like Union Square Cafe is very homey, but we want to give the guest enough, whether it’s the cocktails, the desserts, or the dinner, to make them say, “That’s not something I would have made at home. I’m really glad I went out.” But at a restaurant like The Modern you feel like you’re going out. What we really need to work on at The Modern is dialing up the kinds of things that make you feel like you came home. Every restaurant needs to have a point of view. But it’s like a sailing race. There’s no such thing as a straight line; you’re constantly making corrections. But the thing I’m proudest of is that our older restaurants are the more popular ones. That’s because we stay focused on where we’re going, but we also listen to our guests and our staff. We’re proud of the point of view that we start with, but we also realize that’s only a starting point.
So how do you actually go about trying to make The Modern feel more like “you’re going home?”
We identify that with a team of our leaders. You don’t do it for them, you ask them for their ideas, so that they understand the concept and they are invested in the solution. For instance, at The Modern we put in shorter tablecloths. When we opened it in 2005, we were thinking more about “going out,” so we had these long formal tablecloths, you’d never have those at home. You wouldn’t believe how a little detail like that makes a place feel more relaxed. Then one person on our team said mentioned how much they loved getting candy afterschool as a kid. So the pastry chef developed the idea of a rolling candy dessert cart with 15 kinds of chocolate on it.
As you make these changes, how do you know if they are having the intended effect?
We’re in the business of creating delight for people. My partner Michael Romano, who was the chef at Union Square Cafe for 20 years, has an old comment card on the bulletin board in his office. It’s a cartoon with three panes. In the first pane, there’s a person opening the door to Union Square Cafe with a frown on their face because they had a bad day, in the second pane they’re eating a burger at the bar, being served by one of our bartenders and their face has a straight line, in the third pane they’re walking out with a smile on their face. Whatever happened to you before you came in we can’t control. Whatever happens in pane two is our responsibility. How we do that all starts with how we hire. The people we hire have to be really good at what they do, but they also have to have a high “HQ”–which means they are people who are at their happiest when they’re making other people feel good. There are plenty of good cooks out there, but there aren’t plenty of really good cooks who are primarily cooking for your pleasure. If you look at the people who work in our restaurants, I think you’d see two things: The first is that our staff is focused on their work, the second is that they are having fun with each other. So the staff exudes that spirit which is in turn quite attractive to the patrons.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the importance of company culture in the restaurant business.
It was intuitive from the beginning but it took me 10 years to name it. I had to name it when I opened my second restaurant Gramercy Tavern. As soon as there were two, it meant that wherever I was, I wasn’t at the other one. I started to see that it was even more important how our staff treated each other than how they treated our guests. Lots of restaurants could never have an open kitchen because of all the yelling that goes on. Waiters get their head’s chopped off in the kitchen, and then they are expected to go into the dining room and be lovely. I couldn’t figure out why Gramercy Tavern didn’t feel right when we first opened, then I realized that that culture was missing.
The only restaurant you’ve closed was Tabla in 2010. You’ve called the decision to close it “excruciatingly hard.” What did you take away from that experience?
As long as there is integrity involved, there is no such thing as failure. Tabla had a 12+ year run, which is pretty extraordinary for an Indian restaurant. We probably closed it two years later than we should have. I was so proud of never having closed a restaurant in a quarter century, and I wanted it to go on for another quarter century. So there was a little bit of foolish pride there, but there was also genuine concern I had for our staff members there. I didn’t want them to lose their jobs. The recession was pretty brutal to Tabla. It was our largest restaurant–one of the many things that I learned from Tabla was scale your restaurant to the concept–Indian cooking, especially in [Tabla chef and now North End Grill chef] Floyd Cardoz’s hands is exquisite, but all it takes is one spouse in a group of three couples to say they don’t care for Indian food, and you’ve lost that whole group. I also realized that the cruelest thing I could have done was to keep that restaurant open. We had an incredibly loyal staff, they were so loyal that they wouldn’t leave, so that mean that for 3 or 4 years they were not getting raises. So we closed it–we closed it the right way. We had a job fair for all of our staff. We invited all of our chefs and GMs, and we also invited every chef and GM of other restaurants who had been alums of Tabla to come in and hire our team. Now all of those people are further in their careers, and a lot of them have come back work with us.
North End Grill is your 28th opening. What’s unique about opening here?
It’s a new neighborhood. One of the things we love to do is come to a neighborhood before the rest of the world does. We did that with Union Square. We did that with Gramercy Tavern in the Flatiron district. We come down here to Battery Park City, there’s a real dearth of restaurants down here. I don’t get it, because there’s a real high concentration of businesses whose employees entertain at lunch and there’s a concentration of residential buildings with residents who go out for dinner. The challenge when you go to a new neighborhood is “are you crazy or not.” And only time tells. One of the reasons we decided to open three restaurants at once in this area–Shake Shack opened here six months ago, Blue Smoke opened here five days ago, and North End Grill opened five days ago–was to try and hasten the process of creating a “there there.”
In addition to your fine dining restaurants, the Shake Shack franchise has really grown in the past few years.
The first Shake Shack was really an attempt to answer a need in Madison Square Park. Then the line kept getting longer and longer…and you can’t get more space in a park. So we opened a second one, to initially try to mitigate the line from the first one. We opened on the Upper West Side but the Madison Square Park line just got longer. Then we opened a Shake Shack at CitiField. Now we have three Shake Shacks, and it was getting to be so big that we dedicated a whole team within the business just to Shake Shack. Then we started getting invitations to open them from all over, the most surprising of which came from the Middle East.
As you expand all over the country and now globally, how do you ensure the Shake Shacks all have this same sense of hospitality?
One of the beautiful things about Shake Shack is that it becomes a mirror of the community it is in. We do the same thing everywhere we go–except for a few drinks we name after the neighborhood we’re in. But they all look different based on who goes there. The Middle East feels different because we don’t have people pulling their burka aside while they’re eating a cheeseburger while taking a picture and blogging about the burger. You wouldn’t believe the Twitter follows we got and the blogging that goes on around the Middle East Shake Shack. We have a company called Hospitality Quotient, which teaches companies who are already the best in the world at what they do to become the best in the world at how they make people feel. So we use Hospitality Quotient to train the staff in with Shake Shacks abroad. The staff in Kuwait consists mostly of Filipino kids. They’ve never been treated this way in any job, and the training we do with them is actually empowering. I think what we’re trying to say is that the spirit is just as important.
In 2011 a number of restaurants started to use iPads as menus and ordering systems. Would you ever see a day where you would use an iPad for people to order or put a live twitter feed on the wall?
I never say never, but I don’t see a role for that in a restaurant like this. We thought a few years ago about having a wine bar that was connected to the Internet. The idea was to have a dynamic list of ten wines by the glass. From anywhere in the world the guests could go online to pick the wines from our list of over 300 wines. Whatever they wanted to taste, we would open it, it would become one of our wines by the glass, and then everyone could see the top wines at that moment. We thought about something like that, it could be a ways off. We always have 3×5 cards at all of our restaurants that describe the wines and the menu, I could absolutely see having an iPad there instead so that a server could go to that information and then come back to your table. But then again, I said I wouldn’t have online reservations because I didn’t want to give up friendly encounters on the phone. Then I realized if that’s how people want to make a reservation, that’s how they want to make a reservation!
Note: This interview has been edited for content, clarity, and length.
[Images: Danny Meyer portrait and The Modern photos by Ellen Silverman; Union Square Cafe, courtesy of Union Square Cafe; Shake Shack, photo by Beyond My Ken]
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08. He is also the founder & executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in 2012.